________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 36. . . .May 22, 2015


Twisted History: 32 True Stories of Torture, Traitors, Sadists, and Psychos...Plus the Most Celebrated Saints in History.

Howard Watson.
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2015.
173 pp., trade pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-77085-556-4.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4



[Lavrentiy] Beria was put in charge of repressing the anti-Soviet Georgian nationalists, his former allies. Up to 10,000 Georgians were executed in a mass extermination and many more were imprisoned, with Beria personally taking part in torture sessions. The young psychopath had found his sadistic forte, once saying about a prisoner: “Let me have one night with him and I’ll have him confessing he’s the king of England.” Beria was never burdened by a moral imperative to seek the truth. He wanted to inflict such extraordinary pain that a victim would confess to anything.


Twisted History is presented in three sections, but the boundaries between the categories are rather arbitrary. The first part, “Treachery & Torture”, demonstrates that even people who commit treasonous acts are complex individuals who may have been convinced that they were justified in their actions and may have served their nation loyally for a long time before changing sides. The section includes biographies of 10 men arranged chronologically and extending back in time to Brutus, “who murdered his friend and ally Julius Caesar”, to Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s henchmen who executed political opponents with delight. The subjects are all from Europe with the exception of Benedict Arnold, the American turncoat whose treachery during the American War of Independence brought him infamy despite the long career that he once held in the service of the American colonies. Watson incorporates a great deal of information into the short entries but sometimes tends to employ a style and vocabulary that will likely be beyond a teenage readership. The book is really most suited to adult readers. Younger readers will be captivated by some of the details: how a person (William Wallace, Scottish patriot) was hanged, drawn, and quartered, how the medieval torture rack operated, the perverse sexual crimes of alleged pedophile and serial murder Gilles de Rais of 15th century France, the degree of cruelty of Vlad III of Wallachia, known for impaling some 80,000 Ottomans and whose name Dracula later inspired literary reinvention as a vampire. One of the strengths of the writing is Watson’s willingness to balance claims of depravity written by the victors of wars with known positives, such as Richard III’s significant judicial reforms. Watson explains how literary writers like Shakespeare have helped to shape the impressions people have of historical figures like Richard III.

      The second section, “Saints & Sinners”, focuses upon 11 subjects, many martyred and others who feverishly engaged in religious persecution. Judas Iscariot could just have easily been slotted into the first section for his infamous betrayal of Christ is one of history’s most widely known accounts of treachery. Nero, the Roman emperor, is said to have used Christians as human torches. Joan of Arc, the only female subject in the book and the patron saint of France, likely suffered from “a delusional personality disorder” and was burned to death as a heretic and witch. A fine feature of the volume is the inclusion of a succinct “Fact File” on the first page of each subject’s biography that highlights his life story as shown in this example for Tomás de Torquemada:

Born: 1420, Valladolid.
Died: September 16, 1498, Avila.
Historic Feat: Masterminded the Spanish Inquisition, the execution of 2,000 Jews and the expulsion of 200,000.
Circumstances of Death: Natural causes.
Legacy: Responsible for religious persecution and genocide.

     The section includes more Catholic martyrs: Thomas More who refused to betray his faith and was executed at Henry VIII’s orders, and René Goupil, “the first American saint, who was tortured and martyred by Native Americans in the seventeenth century.” Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who peacefully advocated for radical changes in India and the United States were both assassinated. The twentieth century’s largest scale religious-based genocide is undoubtedly the Holocaust, and two key figures are deservedly included in this volume: Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann is in the first section but perhaps would be best placed in the second section with Hitler. The most unusual inclusion is that of Bernie Madoff whose financial scams are the largest to date in U.S. history. Perhaps this choice will help to give white-collar crime more recognition, but it cannot compete for salaciousness with gruesome mass murder and genocidal malevolence.

      The final section of the book, “Murder & Mayhem,” contains 11 subjects, all men, and all active between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. They range from the pirate Blackbeard and English highwayman Dick Turpin to Indic Thug Behram, American outlaw William “Billy the Kid” Bonney, gangster Al Capone, Japanese Yakuza boss Kazuo Taoka to assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. This section highlights lawbreakers and gangsters whose crimes disrupt societies and the safety and security that they seek. Assassins who killed two American presidents share the section with two serial killers, the unidentified Jack the Ripper who terrified Victorian London and H.H. Holmes who confessed to 27 murders but may have killed upwards of two hundred people, many in his Chicago hotel.

      One of the greatest strengths of Twisted History is the extensive inclusion of appropriate historical images. Many of these are reproduced in colour and include engravings, paintings, newspaper details, photographs and reproductions of letters and other documents. Most of the graphics are accompanied by varying amounts of detail as to what they depict and who created them. Overall, the text and images serve the reader very well. Sidebars used in many of the biographies add context by relating similar crimes or criminals or by expanding upon a topic noted. An index is also included.


Val Ken Lem is the History, English, and Caribbean studies liaison librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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